Adelard Mambuya Obul’Okwess worked as a journalist for 12 years before he became a media trainer with Journalists for Human Rights in his home city of Kinshasa.
A media professional and occasional lecturer in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s most prominent school of journalism, the Institut Facultaire des Science de Communication et de l’Information, he embodied the perfect profile when he applied for a vacant foreign position with JHR.
JHR is just one of many Western NGOs and international organizations, which encourage media coverage and public awareness on human rights in countries where they are breached on a daily basis.
“I forwarded my candidature and they picked me among 30 people,” said the 37-year-old former news editor, who worked for a press agency and a TV station in the DRC and started serving for JHR in November 2007. He still works as a freelance journalist.
Targeting public awareness
Western organizations like Canada-based JHR and global communication for development network, Panos, recruit journalists and advocacy experts to serve as trainers in African countries where media are often confronted with human rights and development issues while they cannot count on a legal framework ensuring pluralism and press freedom.
Working journalists are involved in courses and seminars that focus on producing news stories on development issues and promoting human rights awareness within the media environment. Foreign and local trainers are employed for up to one year and get monthly stipends of around $2,000 a month.
JHR aims to promote rights awareness rather than just providing reporters with professional training. It is funded by the Canadian government, United Nations, U.S. State Department and U.K. Department for International Development, among others.
Founded in 2002, JHR has been running programs in post-conflict African countries as well as in Canadian and Middle Eastern universities and North American high schools.
As the director of JHR programs in the DRC, Okwess supervises the courses run by the organization for media professionals between the age of 25 and 40, as well as seminars for the promotion of human rights in schools.
Training courses for professionals last for two months. The organization’s human rights awareness campaigns target newspaper editors, with their reporters taking part in the program as trainees.
“We need editors to be keen to publish the work that trainees do with us. Here the press is not like elsewhere. Human rights are not a money-attracting issue. That’s why we have to meet the editors and explain to them how crucial this topic is,” Okwess pointed out.
Okwess also participates in the selection of candidates who apply for JHR’s vacant positions as media trainers in Africa. According to him, knowledge of local issues, adequate professional experience and fluency in French – DRC’s official language – are the most important aspects to be taken into account while choosing foreign staff. The ability and willingness to adapt to different realities are also crucial.
“Here it’s not difficult for people to adapt, but they have to be interested in doing so. People help you, but you may have troubles walking around at night and because of the high cost of life,” Okwess said.
Media trainers from Canada and the United States who join JHR programs in Africa-mainly in the DRC, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Malawi, Zambia and Liberia-are generally in their 20s to 60s. They have previous experience as journalists and trainers, but, according to Okwess, that alone would not be enough to guarantee their success as media trainers.
“They need to get to the country in which they will work with some knowledge of it. You need to know the environment, as people here face human rights violations on a daily basis. They also need to be experienced and humble, as they will be working with other professionals,” he said.
Okwess said it is also crucial for media trainers to have proper knowledge of the local environment to avoid complications like prosecution.
“It all depends on the sensitivity of the issues. Here journalists can even be arrested, but things are usually fine. You need to know the environment and the people,” he explained.
Differences in style and reporting methods could also make professional interaction between local journalists and foreign trainers difficult, Okwess pointed out.
“In the U.S. the press searches into private lives, while our press here has a different style, like in France or in Belgium: we make a lot of comments. In addition, although literacy is high, journalists need to explain facts while in the States readers are generally able to understand by themselves.”
In order to prevent such obstacles, trainers need to be provided with an introduction to the environment they are going to work in and assisted by local trainers, who, as Okwess explained, are hired in the same number and at the same level as foreign ones.
“Our first trainers encountered enormous difficulties. We will bring the next ones here in the coming days, so that they can get used to the place, meet people. This is an important enrichment, coming from the meeting of two different styles,” he said.
As a Congolese journalist who was trained and always worked in his home country, Okwess remains convinced that human rights issues are of crucial importance when it comes to media reporting in DRC and other African countries.
“You need to have reporters who know about human rights in every news room, as people suffer from their violation on a daily basis,” he said.
According to the JHR country director for DRC, such professionals can only be trained by other journalists who are actively committed to the promotion of human rights awareness.
“You have to be experienced in both fields, journalism and advocacy. If you are not interested in human rights you cannot do well,” he pointed out.
“Our first purpose is promoting human rights and increasing public awareness over them,” JHR International programs director Nikki Whaites said.
Although the profile of JHR international trainers may vary according to the country they are sent to, journalism studies and work experience abroad are among the main requirements when it comes to selecting candidates who apply for vacant positions in the organization, Whaites pointed out.
“Requirements vary from country to country where the traineeship is held. For general applications, we ask for a degree in journalism and some international experience,” she said.
Like JHR, Panos also promotes human rights awareness through journalism advocacy.
“We are a network and each office in each region is autonomous. London was the first Panos to be set up 22 years ago. Everywhere people were inspired by the idea and set up similar things, so they became part of the network,” said Anna Egan, managing editor at Panos London.
Panos’ projects in different continents focus on making sure that media freedom is not jeopardized by country laws as well as push for a wider visibility of marginalized people and sensitive topics.
“Nearly every office would work with the local media and journalists to try to encourage better quality reporting on some development issues, or about the representation by the media of people who are marginalized by poverty or socially. We are also often trying to get a better regulatory framework for the media to work in a more independent way,” Egan explained.
Panos’ programs target professional journalists who don’t need basic training but work in countries and environments where awareness over development issues may not be sufficient.
“In several countries they are not specialists in some development issues, especially the most complex ones, when we are talking about trade or climate change,” Egan said. “And there is a tradition of journalists reinforcing the prejudice or the stigmatization of people, say, living with HIV.
Panos use fellowships, seminars and grants to encourage journalists from all over the world to report about development issues in their countries. Its Global AIDS Program launched a fellowship to support reporting on tuberculosis and its link with HIV/AIDS, which, as Egan put it “is not really making its way into the media and when it is the quality isn’t so high.”
Fellow journalists are provided with economic and technical support before their work is finalized.
“We would give them a daily leave from their newspapers and radio stations. They’d be given briefings on both ethical and social aspects of TB, it wouldn’t just support them with medical details. And then they would be even given an editor subject specialist they’d be able to liaise with in the period of time they’ll be writing their article,” Egan said.
Panos also supports the participation of journalists from developing countries in major international summits, such as the Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland. Egan said that putting journalists in contact with experts on development topics was a crucial part of Panos’ programs.
“If you work in places where the quality of journalism is quite low and journalists are trying to tackle tricky issues, just throwing information at people doesn’t necessarily result in better reporting and a better understanding. So we try to bring subject experts together with people like journalists,” Egan explained.
Most Panos trainers are former full time journalists who decide to be what Egan called “a mix between journalists and trainers.” Many of them keep working as freelance journalists while serving with the organization.
“We cannot use people who are full time journalists. They are focused on output, understandably, and, while we want them to ultimately produce this output, we are more interested in the process,” Egan said.
Training the youth
NGOs and development organizations also hire media professionals and activists for human rights-related media projects involving training the youth in developing countries, mainly in Africa.
Plan, an international NGO focused on children rights in developing countries, also sponsored the participation of a youth in the media camp in Ethiopia.
As a part of its action to help youth from poverty and violence-stricken areas across the world, Plan provides teenagers with practical training in radio and TV production and supports their participation as media practitioners in international summits and events such as the European Development Days in November 2008.
Michel Lampouguini Nagnimari, a sociologist with Plan’s office in Sotouboua, in central Togo, said that kids who are trained in the organization’s programs are able to perform interviews and produce video and audio outputs, which are later uploaded on the NGO’s website.
“In Togo we run a multimedia center where kids are introduced to IT and video montage. We have a radio training section where we provide them with radio technical skills and we also teach them how to write articles for newspapers,” Nagnimari said.
In August 2008, Plan supported the participation of a youth in a media and advocacy training camp in Addis Ababa sponsored by UNICEF, which was attended by 20 teenagers and young people between 15 and 28 years of age from seven African countries, and facilitated by African youth-focused communication platform Speak Africa.
“We are trying to see this as a strategy in an ongoing effort, get support in many different countries, make it more of a ground-square of action. A network in a larger period of time,” said Kerida McDonald, communication cluster chief at UNICEF Ethiopia.
Several organizations provided technical resources and training staff to the camp, which saw interaction among young people from different countries and of various languages.
Spokespersons who are politically aware and know how to use the media in order to spread the understanding of human right issues are among the perfect candidates to train young people in programs such as the Speak Africa camp, as well as working journalists and media professionals who are keen to improve their knowledge of the African continent.
McDonald said that finding people who could communicate at least in the main languages spoken within the African Union is one of the main difficulties that organizers face in choosing trainers for the program.
“To do justice, to make sure that it’s not just in English, we have really been challenged. We are now doing a little bit better than when everything was in English,” she said.
Trainers for Speak Africa are chosen and contributed by different organizations taking part in the program. They combine both communication and advocacy skills and come from different professional backgrounds in those fields.